Military history

Chapter 2

IT WAS Good Friday, March 30, the beginning of the Easter weekend. In Warm Springs, Georgia, President Roosevelt had arrived for a stay at the Little White House; near the railroad station crowds stood in the hot sun waiting, as always, to greet him. At the first appearance of the President a murmur of surprise swept the onlookers. He was being carried from the train in the arms of a Secret Service man, almost inert, his body sagging. There was no jaunty wave, no good-humored joke shared with the crowd. To many, Roosevelt seemed almost comatose, only vaguely aware of what was happening. Shocked and apprehensive, the people watched in silence as the Presidential limousine moved slowly away.

In Moscow the weather was unseasonably mild. From his second-floor apartment in the embassy building on Mokhavaya Street, Major General John R. Deane gazed out across the square at the green Byzantine domes and minarets of the Kremlin. Deane, the Chief of the U.S. Military Mission, and his British counterpart, Admiral Ernest R. Archer, were awaiting confirmation from their respective ambassadors, W. Averell Harriman and Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr, that a meeting with Stalin had been arranged. At that conference they would deliver to Stalin “SCAF 252,” the cable which had arrived from General Eisenhower the day before (and which the ailing U.S. President had not seen).

In London Winston Churchill, cigar jutting from his mouth, waved to onlookers outside No. 10 Downing Street. He was preparing to leave by car for Chequers, the 700-acre official residence of British Prime Ministers in Buckinghamshire. Despite his cheerful appearance, Churchill was both worried and angry. Among his papers was a copy of the Supreme Commander’s cable to Stalin. For the first time in almost three years of close cooperation, the Prime Minister was furious with Eisenhower.

British reaction to Eisenhower’s cable had been mounting for more than twenty-four hours. The British had been bewildered at first, then shocked, and finally angered. Like the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, London had learned of the message at second hand—through copies passed along “for information.” Not even the British Deputy Supreme Commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, had known of the cable beforehand; London had heard nothing from him. Churchill himself was caught completely off balance. Remembering Montgomery’s signal of March 27 announcing his drive to the Elbe and “thence by autobahn to Berlin, I hope,” the Prime Minister whipped off an anxious note to his Chief of Staff, General Sir Hastings Ismay. Eisenhower’s message to Stalin, he wrote, “seems to differ from Montgomery who spoke of Elbe. Please explain.” For the moment Ismay could not.

At that point Montgomery gave his superiors another surprise. The powerful U.S. Ninth Army, he reported to Field Marshal Brooke, was to be switched back from his command to General Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group, which would then make the central thrust to Leipzig and Dresden. “I consider we are about to make a terrible mistake,” Montgomery said.

Once again the British were incensed. In the first place, such information should have come from Eisenhower, not Montgomery. But worse, the Supreme Commander seemed to London to be taking too much into his own hands. In the British view he had not only stepped far beyond his authority by dealing directly with Stalin, but he had also changed longstanding plans without warning. Instead of attacking across Germany’s northern plains with Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group, which had been specially built up for the offensive, Eisenhower had suddenly tapped Bradley to make the last drive of the war through the heart of the Reich. Brooke bitterly summed up the British attitude: “To start with, Eisenhower has no business to address Stalin direct, his communications should be through the Combined Chiefs of Staff; secondly, he produced a telegram which was unintelligible; and finally, what was implied in it appeared to be adrift and a change from all that had been agreed on.” On the afternoon of March 29, an irate Brooke, without consulting Churchill, fired off a sharp protest to Washington. A bitter and vitriolic debate was slowly building up about SCAF 252.

At about the same time, General Deane in Moscow, having taken the first steps to arrange a meeting with Stalin, sent an urgent cable to Eisenhower. Deane wanted “some additional background information in case [Stalin] wishes to discuss your plans in more detail.” After months of frustrating dealings with the Russians, Deane knew full well what the Generalissimo would ask for, and he spelled it all out for Eisenhower: “1) The present composition of Armies; 2) A little more detail on the scheme of maneuver; 3) Which Army or Armies you envisage making the main and secondary advances …; 4) Brief current estimate of enemy dispositions and intentions.” SHAEF quickly complied. At eight-fifteen that night the intelligence was on its way to Moscow. Deane got the composition of the Anglo-American armies and their order of battle from north to south. So detailed was the information that it even included the fact that the U.S. Ninth Army was to revert back from Montgomery to Bradley.

Fifty-one minutes later SHAEF heard from Montgomery. He was understandably distressed. With the loss of Simpson’s Army the strength of his drive was sapped and his chance of triumphantly capturing Berlin seemed gone. But he still hoped to persuade Eisenhower to delay the transfer. He sent an unusually tactful message. “I note,” he said, “that you intend to change the command set up. If you feel this is necessary I pray you not to do so until we reach the Elbe as such action would not help the great movement which is now beginning to develop.”

Montgomery’s British superiors were in no mood to be tactful, as Washington officials quickly discovered. At the Pentagon Brooke’s protest was formally delivered to General Marshall by the British representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. The British note condemned the procedure Eisenhower had adopted in communicating with Stalin and charged that the Supreme Commander had changed plans. Marshall, both surprised and concerned, promptly radioed Eisenhower. His message was mainly a straightforward report on the British protest. It argued, he said, that existing strategy should be followed—that Montgomery’s northern drive would secure the German ports and thereby “to a great extent annul the U-boat war,” and that it would also free Holland, Denmark and open up communications with Sweden again, making available “nearly two million tons of Swedish and Norwegian shipping now lying idle in Swedish ports.” The British Chiefs, Marshall quoted, “feel strongly that the main thrust … across the open plains of N.W. Germany with the object of capturing Berlin should be adhered to …”

To fend off Eisenhower’s British critics and to patch up Anglo-American unity as quickly as possible, Marshall was prepared to give latitude and understanding to both sides. Yet his own puzzlement and annoyance with the Supreme Commander’s actions showed through the last paragraph of his message: “Prior to your dispatch of SCAF 252 had the naval aspects of the British been considered?” He ended with: “Your comments are requested as a matter of urgency.”

One man above all others felt urgency—and, indeed, impending chaos—in the situation. Winston Churchill’s anxiety had been mounting almost hourly. The Eisenhower incident had arisen at a moment when relations among the three allies were not going well. It was a critical period, and Churchill felt very much alone. He did not know how ill Roosevelt was, but for some time previous he had been puzzled and uneasy about his correspondence with the President. As he was later to put it: “In my long telegrams I thought I was talking to my trusted friend and colleague … [but] I was no longer being fully heard by him … various hands drafted in combination the answers which were sent in his name … Roosevelt could only give general guidance and approval … these were costly weeks for all.”

Even more worrisome was the rapid political deterioration that was evident between the West and Russia. Churchill’s suspicions about Stalin’s post-war aims had grown steadily since Yalta. The Soviet Premier had contemptuously disregarded the promises made there; nearly every day now, new and ominous trends appeared. Eastern Europe was slowly being swallowed up by the U.S.S.R.; Anglo-American bombers, downed behind Red Army lines because of fuel or mechanical problems, were being interned along with their crews; air bases and facilities promised by Stalin for the use of American bombers had been suddenly denied; the Russians, granted free access to liberated prisoner-of-war camps in western Germany for the repatriation of their troops, refused similar permission to Western representatives to enter, evacuate or in any way aid Anglo-American soldiers in eastern European camps. Worse, Stalin had charged that “Soviet ex-prisoners of war in U.S. camps … were subjected to unfair treatment and unlawful persecution, including beating.” When the Germans in Italy tried to negotiate secretly the surrender of their forces, Russian reaction was to fire off an insulting note accusing the Allies of treacherously dealing with the enemy “behind the back of the Soviet Union, which is bearing the brunt of the war …”*

And now had come the Eisenhower message to Stalin. At a time when the choice of military objectives might well determine the future of post-war Europe, Churchill considered that Eisenhower’s communication with the Soviet dictator constituted a dangerous intervention into global and political strategy—realms that were strictly the concern of Roosevelt and the Prime Minister. To Churchill, Berlin was of crucial political importance and it now looked as though Eisenhower did not intend to make an all-out effort to capture the city.

Before midnight on March 29 Churchill had called Eisenhower on the scrambler telephone and asked for a clarification of the Supreme Commander’s plans. The Prime Minister carefully avoided mentioning the Stalin cable. Instead he stressed the political significance of Berlin and argued that Montgomery should be allowed to continue the northern offensive. It was of paramount importance, Churchill felt, that the Allies capture the capital before the Russians. Now, on this March 30, as he began the 60-odd-mile drive to Chequers, he pondered Eisenhower’s answer with profound concern. “Berlin,” the Supreme Commander had said, “is no longer a major military objective.”

In Reims, Dwight Eisenhower’s temper was mounting in pace with the British protests. The London reaction to the curbing of Montgomery’s northern drive had surprised him by its vehemence, but more astonishing to Eisenhower was the storm raging over his cable to Stalin. He could see no reason for any controversy. He believed his action was both correct and militarily essential, and he was incensed to find his decision challenged. Short-tempered at best, Eisenhower was now the angriest Allied leader of all.

On the morning of March 30 he began to respond to the messages from Washington and London. His first move was to send a brief acknowledgment of Marshall’s overnight cable. He promised a more detailed answer within a few hours, but for the moment simply stated that he had not changed plans, and that the British charge “has no possible basis in fact…. My plan will get the ports and all the other things on the north coast more speedily and decisively than will the dispersion now urged upon me by Wilson’s message to you.”

Next, in reply to the Prime Minister’s nighttime telephone request, he sent Churchill additional details clarifying the orders which had been issued Montgomery. “Subject to Russian intentions” a central drive to Leipzig and Dresden under Bradley’s command seemed called for because it would cut the German armies “approximately in half “ and destroy the major part of the remaining enemy forces in the West.” Once its success was assured, Eisenhower intended “to take action to clear the northern ports.” Montgomery, said the Supreme Commander, would be “responsible for these tasks, and I propose to increase his forces if that should seem necessary.” Once “the above requirements have been met,” Eisenhower planned to send General Devers and his Sixth Army Group southeast toward the Redoubt area “to prevent any possible German consolidation in the south, and to join hands with the Russians in the Danube valley.” The Supreme Commander closed by remarking that his present plans were “flexible and subject to changes to meet unexpected situations.” Berlin was not mentioned.

Eisenhower’s message to the Prime Minister was restrained and correct; it did not reflect his anger. But his fury was clearly evident in the detailed cable he sent, as promised earlier, to Marshall. Eisenhower told the U.S. Chief of Staff that he was “completely in the dark as to what the protest concerning ‘procedure’ involved. I have been instructed to deal directly with the Russians concerning military coordination.” As for his strategy, Eisenhower insisted again that there was no change. “The British Chiefs of Staff last summer,” he said, “always protested against my determination to open up the [central] … route because they said it would be futile and … draw strength away from a northern attack. I have always insisted that the northern attack would be the principal effort in … the isolation of the Ruhr, but from the very beginning, extending back before D-Day, my plan … has been to link up … primary and secondary efforts … and then make one great thrust to the eastward. Even cursory examination … shows that the principal effort should … be toward the Leipzig region, in which area is concentrated the greater part of the remaining German industrial capacity and to which area German ministries are believed to be moving.”

Harking back to the old Montgomery-Brooke agitation for a single-thrust strategy, Eisenhower said: “Merely following the principle that Field Marshal Brooke has always shouted to me, I am determined to concentrate on one major thrust and all that my plan does is to place the Ninth U.S. Army back under Bradley for that phase of operations involving the advance of the center … the plan clearly shows that Ninth Army may again have to move up to assist the British and Canadian armies in clearing the whole coastline to the westward of Lübeck.” Afterward, “we can launch a movement to the southeastward to prevent Nazi occupation of the mountain citadel.”

The National Redoubt, which Eisenhower called “the mountain citadel,” was now clearly a major military goal—of more concern, in fact, than Berlin. “May I point out,” the Supreme Commander said, “that Berlin itself is no longer a particularly important objective. Its usefulness to the German has been largely destroyed and even his government is preparing to move to another area. What is now important is to gather up our forces for a single drive, and this will more quickly bring about the fall of Berlin, the relief of Norway and the acquisition of the shipping and the Swedish ports than will the scattering around of our effort.”

By the time Eisenhower reached the final paragraph of his message his anger at the British was barely contained. “The Prime Minister and his Chiefs of Staff,” he declared, “opposed ‘Anvil’ [the invasion of Southern France]; they opposed my idea that the German should be destroyed west of the Rhine before we made our great effort across the river; and they insisted that the route leading northeastward from Frankfurt would involve us merely in slow, rough-country fighting. Now they apparently want me to turn aside on operations in which would be involved many thousands of troops before the German forces are fully defeated. I submit that these things are studied daily and hourly by me and my advisors and that we are animated by one single thought which is the early winning of this war.”*

In Washington, later that day, General Marshall and the Combined Chiefs of Staff received an amplification of the British Chiefs of Staff protest of the day before. For the most part the second telegram was a lengthy reiteration of the first, but there were two important additions. In the interim the British had learned from Admiral Archer in Moscow of the supplementary intelligence forwarded from SHAEF to Deane. The British strongly urged that this information be withheld from the Russians. In the event that discussions had already begun, London wanted the talks suspended until the Combined Chiefs of Staff had reviewed the situation.

But by now the British were beginning to disagree among themselves—not just over the propriety of the Eisenhower message, but over which parts of it should be attacked. The British Chiefs of Staff had neglected to show Churchill their protests before sending them off to Washington. And Churchill’s objections differed from those of his military advisors. To him, the “main criticism of the new Eisenhower plan is that it shifts the axis of the main advance upon Berlin to the direction through Leipzig and Dresden.” As the Prime Minister saw it, under this plan British forces “might be condemned to an almost static role in the North.” Worse, “all prospect also of the British entering Berlin with the Americans is ruled out.”

Berlin, as always now, was uppermost in the Prime Minister’s thoughts. It seemed to him that Eisenhower “may be wrong in supposing Berlin to be largely devoid of military or political importance.” Although government departments had “to a great extentoved to the south, the dominating fact on German minds of the fall of Berlin should not be overlooked.” He was haunted by the danger involved in “neglecting Berlin and leaving it to the Russians.” He declared: “As long as Berlin holds out and withstands a siege in the ruins as it may easily do, German resistance will be stimulated. The fall of Berlin might cause nearly all Germans to despair.”

While agreeing in principle with the arguments of his Chiefs of Staff, Churchill felt they had brought into their objections “many minor extraneous matters.” He pointed out that “Elsenhower’s credit with the U.S. Chiefs of Staff stands very high … the Americans will feel that, as the victorious Supreme Commander, he had a right, and indeed a vital need, to try to elicit from the Russians … the best point for making contact by the armies of the West and of the East.” The British protest, Churchill feared, would only provide “argumentative possibilities … to the U.S. Chiefs of Staff.” He expected them to “riposte heavily.” And they did.

On Saturday, March 31, the American military chiefs gave Eisenhower their unqualified support. They agreed with the British on only two points: that Eisenhower should amplify his plans for the Combined Chiefs of Staff and that additional details to Deane should be held up. In the view of the U.S. Chiefs, “the battle of Germany is now at the point where the Commander in the Field is the best judge of the measures which offer the earliest prospect of destroying the German armies or their power to resist. … General Eisenhower should continue to be free to communicate with the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Army.” To the American military leaders there was only one aim, and it did not include political considerations. “The single objective,” they said, “should be quick and complete victory.”

Still, the controversy was far from over. In Reims, a harassed Eisenhower was still explaining and re-explaining his position. During the day, following Marshall’s instructions, Eisenhower sent the Combined Chiefs of Staff a long and detailed exposition of hisplans. Next, he cabled Moscow and ordered Deane to withhold from Stalin the additional information sent from SHAEF. After that he assured Marshall in still another message, “You may be sure that, in future, policy cables passing between myself and the military mission in Moscow will be repeated to the Combined Chiefs of Staff and the British.” And finally, he came to Montgomery’s still-unanswered plea, which had arrived nearly forty-eight hours before.

It was more than the urgency of his previous cables that caused Eisenhower to answer Montgomery last. Relations between the two men had become so strained that Eisenhower was now communicating with the Field Marshal only when absolutely necessary. As the Supreme Commander explained years later:* “Montgomery had become so personal in his efforts to make sure that the Americans—and me, in particular—got no credit, that, in fact, we hardly had anything to do with the war, that I finally stopped talking to him.” The Supreme Commander and his staff—including, interestingly, the senior British generals at SHAEF—saw Montgomery as an egocentric troublemaker who in the field was overcautious and slow. “Monty wanted to ride into Berlin on a white charger wearing two hats,” recalled British Major General John Whiteley, SHAEF’s Deputy Operations Chief, ” but the feeling was that if anything was to be done quickly, don’t give it to Monty.” Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, SHAEF’s Deputy Chief of Staff, put it another way: “At that moment Monty was the last person Ike would have chosen for a drive on Berlin—Monty would have needed at least six months to prepare.” Bradley was a different sort. “Bradley,” Eisenhower told his aide, “has never held up, never paused to regroup, when he saw an opportunity to advance.”

Now, Eisenhower’s anger over the criticism of his cable to Stalin, coupled with his longstanding antagonism toward Montgomery, was clearly reflected in his reply to the Field Marshal. It exuded annoyance. “I must adhere,” it said, “to my decision about Ninth Army passing to Bradley’s command…. As I have already told you, it appears from this distance that an American formation will again pass to you at a later stage for operations beyond the Elbe. You will note that in none of this do I mention Berlin. That place has become, as far as I am concerned, nothing but a geographical location, and I have never been interested in these. My purpose is to destroy the enemy’s forces …”

Even as Eisenhower was making his position evident to Montgomery, Churchill at Chequers was writing the Supreme Commander a historic plea. It was in nearly every respect the antithesis of Eisenhower’s words to Montgomery. A little before 7 P.M. the Prime Minister wired the Supreme Commander: “If the enemy’s position should weaken, as you evidently expect … why should we not cross the Elbe and advance as far eastward as possible? This has an important political bearing, as the Russian army … seems certain to enter Vienna and overrun Austria. If we deliberately leave Berlin to them, even if it should be in our grasp, the double event may strengthen their conviction, already apparent, that they have done everything.

“Further, I do not consider myself that Berlin has lost its military and certainly not its political significance. The fall of Berlin would have a profound psychological effect on German resistance in every part of the Reich. While Berlin holds out, great masses of Germans will feel it their duty to go down fighting. The idea that the capture of Dresden and the juncture with the Russians there would be a superior gain does not commend itself to me…. Whilst Berlin remains under the German flag, it cannot in my opinion fail to be the most decisive point in Germany.

“Therefore I should greatly prefer persistence in the plan on which we crossed the Rhine, namely that the Ninth U.S. Army should march with the 21st Army Group to the Elbe and beyond to Berlin …”

In Moscow, as darkness fell, the American and British Ambassadors, together with Deane and Archer, met with the Soviet Premier and delivered Eisenhower’s message. The conference was brief. Stalin, as Deane later reported to the Supreme Commander, “was impressed with the direction of the attack in central Germany” and he thought “Eisenhower’s main effort was a good one in that it accomplished the most important objective of dividing Germany in half.” He felt too that the Germans’ “last stand would probably be in western Czechoslovakia and Bavaria.” While approving of Anglo-American strategy, Stalin was noncommittal about his own. The final coordination of Soviet plans, the Premier said, would have to wait until he had a chance to consult with his staff. At the conclusion of the meeting he promised to reply to Eisenhower’s message within twenty-four hours.

Moments after his visitors left, Stalin picked up the phone and called Marshals Zhukov and Koniev. He spoke tersely but his orders were clear: the two commanders were to fly to Moscow immediately for an urgent conference the following day, Easter Sunday. Although he did not explain the reason for his orders, Stalin had decided that the Western Allies were lying; he was quite sure Eisenhower planned to race the Red Army for Berlin.

*Churchill had shown this Russian note to Eisenhower on March 24 and the Supreme Commander, he later wrote, “seemed deeply stirred with anger at what he considered most unjust and unfounded charges about our good faith.”

*Eisenhower’s 1,000-word cable does not appear in the official histories, and the version in his own Crusade in Europe has been cut and edited. For example, the phrase “always shouted to me” has been changed to “always emphasized,” while the angry last paragraph cited above has been dropped altogether. Ironically, the cable was originally drafted by a Britisher, SHAEF’s Deputy Operations Chief, Major General John Whiteley, but by the time it left headquarters it bore Eisenhower’s clear imprint.

*In a long and detailed taped interview with the author.

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